By Paul Kay
When most people think of opera, they likely envisage lavish sets, extravagant costumes and a substantial cast belting out arias to a cavernous theatre of aficionados. For Rumiko Hasegawa and Lucy Choi, however, none of these things are truly necessary to enjoy the beauty of the art form, a notion that led them to co-found More Than Musical (MTM) to bring opera to a wider audience in Hong Kong.
“We are hoping to give people a new idea, a new perception about opera,” says Hasegawa when we meet at the fledgling company’s temporary rehearsal space in an industrial building in the New Territories. “We want to make opera more accessible to a more diverse community.”
To do this, MTM focuses on stripping classic operas down to their essence, reducing the cast and running time, and staging them in more casual and intimate settings. For their first full-scale production, they have chosen to adapt the most popular opera of all time, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which will receive its premiere with an all-Asian cast at the new ArtisTree in Taikoo Place.
Featuring just six singers and two musicians performing in a simple setting, the show aims to remove the intimidation factor often associated with opera, and to allow spectators to see the art form up close and in a whole new light. “You really feel the drama and you feel you are part of it,” says Choi. “You basically sit there as part of the set, as part of the story.”
“[The audience is] only about 200 people, so it’s a very intimate setting,” adds soprano Lei Xu, who plays tragic heroine Violetta. “Everybody can see your micro facial expressions – like a movie or a theatre piece. It’s very refreshing for us, because as opera singers we don’t get to do that very often on stage.”
Similarly, with a drastically reduced number of musicians, the piano plays a much greater role in the production, as artistic director and award-winning pianist Wei-En Hsu explains. “We don’t have the orchestra to think about, so it’s mainly the pianist who has to serve as the orchestra,” he says. “The piano has to move the story along, so the pianist is not just serving as an accompaniment, it’s also one of the characters in telling the story.”
Drawing all these elements together in rehearsals is acclaimed opera director Nic Muni, who in addition to directing the show is also responsible for writing the abridged adaptation and designing the set, lighting and costumes. In keeping with the intimate nature of the production, Muni’s process involves zeroing in on the smallest details – from the exact meaning of a word or phrase to subtle looks and gestures – to bring the emotions inherent in the piece to the surface. He also asks the performers to stop and paraphrase the meaning of the Italian lyrics in their native tongue to deepen their understanding and make their delivery more natural.
“Opera, and drama for that matter, focus more on the psychological action, so it’s not so much about what’s going on physically, although that’s there, it’s about the internals at first,” explains Muni. “So once the internals are clear then you do physically whatever’s needed to tell that story.”
As well as condensing the narrative, Muni’s adaptation is set in the modern day. This is both in keeping with Verdi’s original intention (the Italian composer set the initial 19th-century production in 1853, the year it was premiered, which was a highly unusual choice for an opera at the time) and an attempt to make stronger connections with modern audiences. Thus, cocaine is among the hedonistic temptations on offer to the characters in the opening party scene, and key information is delivered by email rather than by messengers carrying notes.
The goal, says Hasegawa, is to show Hong Kong audiences that opera is not some pretentious spectacle that has no relation to real-life, but is instead a thing of beauty that everyone can relate to. “We want people to experience that opera is a living art form, and it’s relevant to them, it’s relevant to their life,” says Hasegawa. “I think La Traviata is relevant to everyone. Which part of the drama is relevant to you? It’s up to the audience.”
La Traviata by More Than Musical premiered at the new ArtisTree on June 17 2017.